Judgement. It’s not a popular idea. However, I think we need it. In fact, I believe judgement is a gift that comes to us particularly in the season of Advent. Judgement calls us to sit with the heartbreak of the world—to listen and turn, to repent and turn, to turn and imagine.
A dear friend of our congregation, Mario, was detained by immigration authorities this week. Mario is a loving, hard-working husband and father whose income supports the whole family. Last year, he was the victim of a shooting. He spent many weeks in the hospital, fighting for his life. Mario’s health issues make him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Now, he’s in jail, where protection against the virus is minimal. His family is terribly worried about him, afraid that he will get sick or that they will be permanently separated by his deportation.
When the settlers arrived in Minnesota, what if we had shared this sacred land? Perhaps the Dakota would not have experienced that terrible chain of events—starvation, war, mass-execution, concentration camps and finally exile from their home. During the building of the light rail in 1998 white folks were still not ready to listen or to change. We did not yet understand that a healthy, sane and just society does not cut down oaks of hope and resilience to build a road through a people’s sacred burial ground. Even as final permits are issued for Line 3, and we prepare to pipe the dirty oil of an earth-killing economy through the precious waters of life, maybe there is still time not only to imagine what might have been but also to imagine what still could be.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” With our hearts broken and our imagination turning, we cry with our ancestors in faith, cry out for God’s presence, and yes, for God’s judgement. Both of today’s scripture texts are addressed to a people in crisis. In Isaiah’s time, the exiles returned to a home that was in ruin, to a site of mass trauma. The people lived with a keen sense of God’s absence, held in tension with their memory of God’s powerful past deeds.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” They knew God’s mountain-shaking, water boiling presence would not bring comfort. There was no blaming someone else, no finger pointing. “We sinned.” they said, “We transgressed.” “We all” are unclean. Even the deeds we intend to be righteous resemble a filthy cloth. We all are like fragile leaves blown away by the great wind of our wrong-doing. And yet, they reminded God, we are all your people. They longed for God to draw near, because they trusted that God’s judgment of their sin would not separate them from a loving relationship with God.
At the time when the Gospel of Mark was written, the Jewish community was again in crisis. A revolt against Roman oppression culminated with a brutal seven-month siege of Jerusalem. Unable to breach the city’s fortifications, the Romans camped outside. Within the city, fighting between different Jewish groups led to the entire supply of food being burned. Anyone the Romans caught trying to escape was crucified. As many as five hundred such executions occurred each day. So the description, in the Gospel, of natural distress—sun darkening, moon failing to give light, stars plunging from heaven—is probably a metaphor for the turmoil and terror the community was living through.
It felt, to them, like the end of the world. And the Jesus of Mark’s imagination reassured this desperate community. As in Isaiah’s time, the people were called to live faithfully in the tension between absence and presence, suffering and hope. The collapse of the armed revolt against Rome was a clear judgement. Violence cannot bring freedom. Warfare does not lead to peace. Jesus, the preacher, and Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah points to another way of being. Angels gather the bruised, broken and scattered bodies of God’s people. God brings change not through military might, but through a process of growth that resembles the leafing out of a fig tree (or perhaps an ancient oak) in anticipation of summer. When all our human words and strategies fail us, it is time to turn to the word of God who was made flesh and dwells among us.
I believe judgement has been mis-characterized as something God rains down upon us. In fact, we are free to receive, or refuse, divine judgement. Whether or not we listen and turn, repent and turn, turn and imagine, is entirely up to us. Judgement is not meant to make us feel guilty, or to prompt us to blame someone else. Judgement urges us toward responsibility and change. And then invites us into relief and hope. In times of crisis and turmoil, times like these, when it feels like the world might be coming to an end, the scriptures tell us: God works for those who wait for God.
So wait and watch. Stay alert. Keep awake. Because the world is about to turn.